For years, Harry Potter fans have been anticipating the opening of The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter’s expansion in Universal Studios Orlando. And now, finally — Well, it’s not here yet. The Diagon Alley expansion isn’t open to the public until July 8.
But last night (June 18), Universal held a Preview Event for media, VIPs, and stars of the film, and MTV News was on the scene. Here’s everything that happened that blew our little Muggle minds.
Things kicked off with a Red Carpet event featuring many of the major stars of the “Harry Potter” movies, though sadly none of the original three (Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint) made an appearance. Nor did Steven Spielberg or J.K. Rowling, despite flurried buzz among the assembled journalists that they would be surprise attendees (and also despite Spielberg having nothing to do with the movies other than being a coooool dude).
Instead, we had to make do with just Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), Bill Weasley (Domhnall Gleeson), Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), Fred and George Weasley (James and Oliver Phelps), Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Professor Flitwick (Warwick Davis), Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter).
We’ll have more with them later, as we chatted with most of the stars on the carpet, but suffice to say our main takeaways were that everyone loves Luna, and Neville is the ultimate Potter fan hunk supreme, something no one could have ever predicted way back at “Sorcerer’s Stone.”
Working On Our Knight Bus
The event kicked off in earnest with the lights all going out in the area, except on the Knight Bus. The iconic vehicle has been reproduced outside the London façade of the new area, and out popped the Knight Bus operator. He hopped onto a podium, and introduced Universal and Warner Bros. executives.
Which was all very exciting, but the biggest applause was saved for Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara saying that the Harry Potter fans were the best in the world. Cue joyous screaming from the fans who had lined up for hours just to get a glimpse of Neville’s longbottom.
Also, someone please remind me to remind Tsujihara he said that Harry Potter fans were the best once Warner Bros. gets going in earnest with the DC Comics’ slate of films. Fan fight!
The big finish was multiple fireworks and explosions, as Coltrane used the actual umbrella Hagrid had held in the movies to open up Diagon Alley, just like he did in them there movies. And then, it was into the area proper.
Okay, here’s the thing: Diagon Alley is a massive area hidden behind the fake London in the Universal Studios part of the park, and almost contains its own atmosphere. The staging of it is beautiful and insanely detailed, too, trumping the original Hogsmeade area mainly because it is so incredibly immersive.
Whereas parts of Hosgmeade reveal other parks and coasters, when you’re in Diagon Alley, you’re in Diagon Alley. Or rather, you’re in the area, and can branch off into a number of parts:
Where The Streets Who Must Not Be Named
Diagon Alley itself is only a small part of the new area, which also includes: Garkitt Market, a goblin themed section (which we’ll get to in a moment); Horizont Alley, a shopping street similar to Diagon Alley; and the evil Knockturn Alley. It’s frankly, massive, and contains enough to wander through and look at for a good long time. Where Hogsmeade has a handful of interactive storefronts, the Diagon Alley area has as much to look at as most reasonably sized museums.
The Goblin Market section has two main draws: a goblin money exchange, and the Gringotts Bank Ride. The money exchange is a neat little store filled with chocolate Gringotts bank coins, and the chance to exchange your real money for wizard money, something that basically boils down what’s going on in the park to it’s most basic: here is some of your own money, now here is a toy.
But the biggest draw is a terrifyingly real looking goblin animatronic that will actually respond to questions you ask. It looked me in the eyes. It was scary. I left.
Don’t Bank On Gringotts (Yet)
The new Gringotts Bank rid, meanwhile, is insane…ly designed. I had watched “Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Part 2″ just the other day (which is the inspiration for the ride), and the design work is uncanny. You are walking into Gringotts bank, complete with scribbling, working goblins.
From there, you take your picture for a collectible Gringotts ID later on, head down a rickety elevator, walk through some caverns, and approach the ride. Unfortunately, other than a few lucky riders at the beginning of the night, the ride had broken down and had to be closed.
Obviously they’ll have this fixed by opening day, but it was a bit of a bummer not to see the ride that’s supposed to change the way we ride things AS WE KNOW IT.
Anyway, hopefully more on that later, as we’re getting another tour later on today, and should hopefully have a rundown then.
Butterbeer Ice Cream: Game Changer
The food in The Wizarding World is delicious. Having become insanely addicted to Butterbeer, Pumpkin Juice and the general array of yummy foods available at Hogsmeade, I was curious how Diagon Alley would stack up.
A new store called Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour offers many delicious concoctions, including the crowd-favorite Butterbeer soft-serve ice cream, which is as sweet and creamy as one would hope. The shop also serves Earl Grey and Lavender ice cream, Sticky Toffee Pudding, Chocolate Chili and way more.
But for my money, the best of the best are the new drinks, taken straight from the books. Tongue Tying Lemon Squash is a ridiculously delicious, incredibly sour lemonade, while Fishy Green Ale is probably the most insane drink I’ve ever had.
Like most of the Harry Potter drinks, Fishy Green Ale is crazy sweet, so proceed with caution if you don’t want a sugar buzz. It’s a sort of tea-flavored drink that has blueberry “fish eggs” on the bottom. I don’t know what they are, but the little balls explode in your mouth as you suck them through a straw, causing an explosion of sweet/sour flavor. They’re amazing.
Beyond that there’s some standard English fare, including chicken pie, fish and chips and more; but all notable because they tasted way better than your regular theme park food. With long, group tables at the Leaky Cauldron restaurant (which is huge and beautifully designed, I might add), it’s a great option versus the umpteenth serving of pizza or chicken fingers you might get in other theme park areas.
The Wand Chooses The Wizard
Another very cool addition to both sections of the Wizarding World is an interactive wand game. It’s unclear how much it’ll cost, because they just handed me one for free, but using a special designated wand, you can head to 34 different areas around the park and make a little magic of your own, wink wink.
Meaning, by standing on specific metal plates, moving your wand in a manner indicated on the plate and shouting a magic word or phrase, you can interact with an area of the park.
For example, a bunch of chattering shrunken heads were silenced once I moved my wand in a quick sideways “S” pattern, and shouted, “Mimblewimble!” Or seeing an animation of a bird, I made a quick triangle and shouted, “Incendio!” which made the bird grow giant feet.
Even if you’ve tried all 34, it’s something that demands repeat viewings, as a number of the spells have different outcomes each time. In case you weren’t already spending all day at The Wizarding World? Yeah, now you are.
All Aboard For Hogwarts
Though the Gringotts ride might have been down, the other new big ride, The Hogwarts Express, was very much in working order. And it’s extremely cool.
Essentially a monorail with theming, riders enter through King’s Cross station in “London,” outside of Diagon Alley. After passing through an insanely large and accurate replica of the station, complete with some cheeky ads for “magical” perfume, you get to run through the gap between Platform 9 and 10. Sort of.
See, here’s the thing: it’s a neat effect, but it only works if you’re watching someone else. Using trick mirrors, you can watch friends and other passengers pass through the wall onto the legendary Platform 9 3/4. Try it yourself, and you’re just walking into a hallway.
That said, once you board the Hogwarts Express, you do get two very different, and very cool journeys. They both last about five minutes while you sit in air conditioned comfort a train car right out of the movies.
You can watch the countryside pass by outside on one side, glimpsing movie characters like Hagrid and the Fred and George Weasley; while every once and a while, shadowy figures of Harry, Ron, Hermione and more pass right outside your compartment door, complete with dialogue (and a glimpse of Rupert Grint, seemingly the only actor who lent his likeness for this particular ride).
The journey from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley is relatively calm, though there is a licorice spider attack which is kind of creepy; and you do get to see Voldemort wielding the Elder Wand outside your window, as seen in the last two movies.
The ride from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade, however, is far more intense. Death Eaters start attacking London, a skull is seen in the sky, and then Dementors attack your train car, complete with a crazy looking ice effect. Then chocolate frogs get everywhere, which is slightly less scary, but still pretty weird looking.
Point being: if you can only ride one way, make it Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade.
The Big (Moving) Picture
Yes, Diagon Alley does have a strong focus on shopping: everything from a dark arts store in Knockturn Alley, to the awesomely themed joke shop Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes is all about getting you to buy stuff.
The problem is, the stuff is really, really well made. Or delicious. Or both.
But beyond being a bottomless chasm to throw your money into, it’s also incredibly detailed, rivaling even the high mark of Hogsmeade, the original Wizarding World section.
If you are visiting after the new section opens on July 8, you’ll need to buy a ticket for both Islands of Adventure (home of Hogsmeade) and Universal Studios (home of Diagon Alley) in order to get the full experience, but it’s well worth it.
If you’re a Harry Potter fan, or just a fan of things that clearly took a lot of time, thought, and just look darn cool, Wizarding World of Harry Potter has once again upped the game.
Diagon Alley opens to the public on July 8.